Suffolk Police Latest to Admit First Amendment Violations in $200K Settlement

Sgt. Michael Milton ordered videographer Philip Datz to “go away” before unlawfully arresting him for filming a crime scene in 2011.

A photojournalist who was falsely arrested for filming the aftermath of a police chase in Bohemia three years ago settled a federal lawsuit against Suffolk County police for $200,000—the latest in a string of such cases nationwide.

The settlement also requires police to establish a Police-Media Relations Committee that’s expected to begin meeting soon to handle issues between the press and the department, according to the agreement. The county legislature approved the settlement last week.

“This settlement is a victory for the First Amendment and for the public good,” Philip Datz, who works for Stringer News Service, told the Press. “The results of the settlement are encouraging.”

The announcement came a week after police in New Hampshire paid $57,500 settlement to a woman who was unlawfully arrested for videotaping a police officer. Baltimore police settled a similar lawsuit for $250,000 in March. New York City police settled another such lawsuit for $15,000 earlier this year and Boston police settled yet another for $170,000 two years ago.

In the Suffolk case, Sgt. Michael Milton arrested Datz, who was filming the crash at the end of a police chase, after Milton told Datz to leave the scene on July 29, 2011. Although police lines had not been established, Datz was wearing his police-issued press credentials and members of the public also gathered to watch the police activity, Datz complied and moved roughly a block away.

That’s when Milton approached Datz again, handcuffed him, took him into custody and charged him with obstruction of governmental administration. Datz’ camera and recording were also seized. Datz later posted his footage of the encounter to YouTube after his equipment was returned to him.

Suffolk Country prosecutors dropped the charge against Datz 12 days later. Internal affairs investigators determined that Milton violated department rules. The incident prompted the department to update its policy on dealing with the press and conduct media relations training for officers. The settlement requires that training to be conducted annually.

“The U.S. Department of Justice and numerous courts across the country in recognizing that the public and press have a First Amendment right to photograph and record police officers performing their duties in a public place” Robert Balin, the lead counsel on the case and partner with Davis Wright Tremaine, a Manhattan-based law firm, said in a press release. “That is essential to newsgathering and the free discussion of government affairs.”

The National Press Photographers Association, a trade group that defends photojournalists such as Datz, who is a member of the group, had joined the lawsuit along with the New York Civil Liberties Union. Both groups applauded the settlement.

Amol Sinha, director of the NYCLU’s Suffolk County Chapter told the Press: “We hope that this case shows the world that people ought to recognize that individuals do have the right to record what we see in public.”

The Press Club of Long Island, a local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which wrote a letter to Suffolk police condemning Datz’ arrest, was also pleased at the settlement.

“Members of the media should not be restricted from reporting in areas of a crime scene that are open to the public,” said Chris Vaccaro, the group’s president. PCLI is working with the department in forming the new committee.

Police referred requests for comment to Vanessa Baird-Streeter, spokeswoman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

“We believe this is a fair settlement which underscores the pivotal role the media serves for the police department and the public,” she said. “The enhanced training of the department and creation of a media relations committee will serve the residents of Suffolk County well.”

-With Timothy Bolger